MOSCOW — In what may be the first recent case of Russian authorities ordering the destruction of a specific work of art, a St. Peterburg court is in the midst of hearing an appeal into the case of a work that shows the disintegration of a photo of President Vladimir Putin — it was seized as part of a demonstration last spring. Artists and activists involved in the case are unlikely to succeed in the courts, but they say it is a priceless opportunity to discuss censorship in Russia today.
The condemned work, entitled “9 Stages in the Decomposition of the Leader,” is a print of nine time-lapse digital images showing an official portrait of the Russian president over a seed box, with each image documenting the disintegration of Putin’s portrait as grass grows through. A framed print was carried by artist and activist Varya Mikhailova when she and a group of opposition and LGBTQ activists joined a trade union march last May Day on Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg.
After a half hour with the march, the artists were approached by an organizer who demanded to know if the image was “approved.” Shortly after, police arrived, and she and others were detained. They were released after a few hours, but the framed print was not returned.
In a court hearing on June 8 in Kuibyshev District Court, Mikhailova was ruled to have participated “not in accordance with the declared purpose of the march,” and was fined 160,000 rubles (~$2,500). The print was ordered destroyed. She and her lawyers have appealed, citing European Convention of Human Rights protections for freedom of peaceful assembly and the protection of personal property.
“The funny thing with the court’s decision to ‘destroy’ our artwork is that it is digital, so physical destruction means nothing,” said Max Evstropov, a member of the art collective Rodina, which created the work. “The huge police state is rather awkward.”
Activists quickly swung into gear, printing the offending image on posters, t-shirts, and tote bags, and selling them online. So far they say they’ve made enough to cover Mikhailova’s fine.
The actual image was created in 2015. Evstropov said it was conceived as an allusion to 19th century Japanese artist Kobayashi Eitaku’s print “Body of a Courtesan in Nine Stages,” about the inevitable victory of nature and decay over human assignments of beauty and value.
The work created by Rodina sees a similar case in the political evolution of Russia. “This action is an expression of hope for a slow but inevitable change in the situation from below — through a multitude of ‘small deeds,'” Evstropov wrote in an email to Hyperallergic. “It reflects the low spirits and sickness unto death so characteristic of Russian society of the last few years: there’s no revolution to wait for, and hope for change is no longer associated with human acts.”
The particular print now in custody was sold at an auction in 2017 to support an activist co-working space in St. Petersburg. The first owner put it in a frame, and then sold it again for the same cause a few months later, which is how Mikhailova bought it.
The subversive nature of the work, and the universe of irony it stumbled into as a result of the subsequent case, is a reflection of how young artists and activists are responding to the current political climate. Angelina Lucento, an assistant professor of art and cultural history at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, said the work is driven not so much by hopelessness or despair, but rather by a sense of desperation as other avenues of political action have been cut off.
“What you see among this new generation of contemporary artists is more a disillusion with mass protest as a kind of political resistance,” she said. “There’s a sense that it is not the most effective means to take, and you see a real creative drive to explore and implement other forms of resistance.”
While the Russian art market and gallery system has grown since the end of the Soviet Union, closer to the ground the tradition of conceptual performance-based art remains vibrant. That has included high profile actions by groups like Pussy Riot — famous for their action in a cathedral and the heavy-handed response, and, just this month, disrupting the World Cup final — as well as artists like Petr Pavlensky, famous for nailing himself to the cobblestones of Red Square and setting the front door of the Russian secret police headquarters on fire.
Groups like Rodina (“Motherland” in Russian) are part of that effort to find other means of protest. The group emerged in the fall of 2013 after the last wave of mass opposition appeared to fade. There were demonstrations in late 2011 after parliamentary elections, and in 2012 when Putin cynically returned to the presidency after swapping with seat-warmer Dmitry Medvedev. That moment culminated in a mass demonstration at Bolotnaya Square in Moscow during the days of Putin’s inauguration, but faded afterwards.
Evstropov, a philosopher by training, founded the group with Darya Apahonchich, a philologist, and Leonid Tsoi, a psychotherapist, to engage ideas about Russia’s hyper-patriotism through “performative social art, field and experimental studies of patriotism, language, and institutions of power.”
“The mass protests had already shrunk, but we still felt the necessity to act on those things that happened,” Evstropov said. “There is a certain amount of black humor in our activities. We [offer] no hope, but our work is therapeutic somehow.”
Among their actions was a march in the fall of 2016 that subverted the rhetoric of national celebration and optimism that once characterized May Day in the Soviet Union, when people would march on bright spring days with flowers and placards with hopeful words like “Peace — Labor — May!” In the détourned version by Rodina, they gathered on a gloomy autumn day with much less upbeat signs: “War — Unemployment — November!” “Alas!” “Let’s Endure!” “Born. Suffered. Died.”
In 2017, the group launched a side project to criticize the ramped up politicization of war dead, specifically a national project called the “Immortal Regiment,” in which people march carrying photos of family members who served or died in the Second World War, as an assertion of national pride and power. The “Party of the Dead” imagines the deceased as a majority social group excluded from political power, but now given a voice for their vague but irresistible demands. “The dead are the ultimate proletariat, and our party aims to empower them,” Evstropov said.
They dress in black and paint their faces white, deploy a lot of “Day of the Dead” style imagery, and chant slogans like, “Your future is us!” “A people united — in death!” and “Whoever is not with us, is not yet with us!” Mikhailova was marching with other “Party of the Dead” members on the May Day parade, and brought the “9 Stages” print from home because she thought it was appropriate for the theme.
Most of the group’s actions and work are spread through social media — usually Facebook and the Russian alternative, VKontakte. And while they’ve had some bumps with the authorities, Evstropov said this court case is the most attention they’ve gotten from the state. He told Hyperallergic that pressure often comes not from the authorities but from sympathetic institutions that want to avoid trouble.
“Fear and censorship are things that politically engaged art in Russia faces very often,” he said. “The other dangerous thing artists and activists face is exhaustion and the loss of the will to do anything.”